Editors and Science Journalists
Representatives of Higher Education Institutions;
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good morning to all of you. Let me begin by thanking the host for inviting me to speak at this important event under the theme: Science Journalism: Maximising Outreach, Impact and Understanding. It is indeed an honour for me to be here this morning and to speak on the important role of science journalism.
I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate the organisers for hosting successful events since 2015. I am sure that this gathering will go a long way towards stimulating a debate on the role of science and technology in the country and continent. It is also one way to encourage more people to be interested in science and technology and journalists to report more about discoveries and the benefits of science and technology.
Former editor of The London Sunday Time Harold Evans once said, I quote ‘credibility is good business, and the challenge is not to stay in business; it is to stay in journalism, close quote”
It is often claimed that journalism and by extension the media, serve an important role in democratic societies to facilitate public debate through which policy may be shaped; especially in ‘new’, post-authoritarian democracies where the expectation of media to reorder social relationships and re-imagine cultural identities is high.
We are aware that information is the oxygen of democracy. To this end, we are convinced that if people do not know what is happening in their society, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society.
It is imperative to note that South Africa has changed in the past 23 years and so too have the media which has resulted in the country being one of the widest and most diverse media landscape on the African continent. The journey of the media in this time largely mirrors the journey of our nation.
Journalism can also play a greater and more meaningful role in ensuring that citizens have greater access to information and scientific discoveries and science in general. If we allow scientific information deficit to arise we risk creating a new divide between those with access to scientific resources and those who have none. It is therefore our joint responsibility as government and media to contribute to the development of this country reporting about science matters.
As the Ministry of Communications, since 2015/16 financial year, our entity, the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), has partnered with a number of institutions and this initiative has resulted in the training of community media journalists on how to cover and report science stories.
We are investing money and time in scientific news gathering because this national strategy will ensure that all people receive information. We are mindful of the existence of more than 6,700 languages in the world and that 63 percent of these are in Asia and Africa.
Therefore stories about science are needed most by local communities in languages they understand, speak and hear hence community media are the prime defence against this grave trend towards impoverishment of cultural diversity.
The role of any journalist is to Inform, Educate, Guide and Entertain. Attached to this role is the responsibility to be fair and balanced in reporting about events and issues. A science journalist, because he/she works in an area that is not particularly in line with commonsense notions and that is mostly counterintuitive, he/she has an added responsibility of ensuring he/she reports scientific matters in a way that does not negate or distort scientific facts.
It was Albert Einstein who is reported to have said: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” What this quotation really tell us is that there are three things that are very critical to science journalism: Understand; Simplify and Communicate. It is important that a science journalist takes time to understand a scientific concept in its totality. It is only by understanding that he/she will be able to simplify complex scientific concepts so that they are accessible to the general public. By simplifying one can easily communicate effectively. It is only by embracing these three elements that a science journalist can easily maximize outreach, impact and understanding.
In a 2009 essay in journal Nature, Boyce Rensberger, the former director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program at the MIT, traced the history of Science journalism “from cheerleaders to watchdogs”. According Rensberger, science journalists in the 1930s sought to “persuade the public to accept science as the salvation of society”.
In this respect they tended to place great emphasis “on the wonders of science and respect for scientists, rather than on any analysis of the work being done or any anticipation of its effects on society”. So this was the era of “cheerleaders” for science journalism. Here in the African continent we have many scientists doing great work in various scientific areas and they need cheerleaders. Our thinkers produce innovations that go unnoticed because there are not enough science journalists who follow their work and report on it in a way that attracts interest and curiosity.
Cheerleading science and scientists has its place and it plays an important role in popularizing science and generating the interest of the general public in matters scientific most importantly it can encourage young people to become scientists. However, there are dangers to cheerleading in science journalism. A practical example is that of William Laurence, a New York Times science reporter who was also on the US government’s payroll to write about the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb project.
This was probably the largest and most complex scientific project at the time. He won a Pulitzer prize in 1946 for writing glowing stories about the wonders of the atomic bomb and he completely ignored Japan’s stories about the dangers of radiation caused by the same bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the atomic bombs were dropped. This necessarily requires that science journalists should look beyond the wonders of science and also look at the impact of science in society.
The reduction of the digital divide globally and especially in the African continent means that more and more people have access to information. The Department of Communications plays a leading role in the rollout of Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), which is the migration of the country from analogue to digital broadcasting. The DTT will further help to narrow the digital divide. With increased number of people able to access information it should be easy for people to gain a greater understanding of science and health threats in their environment.
This understanding can only be gained if science journalists take time to write or package information about diseases or whatever threats of a scientific nature in an accessible way for the general public. Attached to this is also the responsibility of journalists to investigate how clinical tests for new drugs are conducted. Often ordinary people, especially in the African continent, are pulled into medical experiments that are potentially dangerous to their health without a proper understanding of what the experiment involves. This brings me to one of the important areas that requires focus and that is the use of indigenous languages to communicate scientific matters.
Because most of the scientific concepts are communicated in languages that they do not understand, ordinary people shy away from science. They look at science as alien and as something that has nothing to do with them. Science journalists have a responsibility to start communicating science in languages that are understood by many especially ordinary rural folks. Often we see outbreaks of preventable diseases that end up killing many people.
If these diseases are effectively communicated it can help people change their behavior or recognise the symptoms or go for treatment. Our gathering today comes less than seven days after we commemorated World Aids Day. Our government has ramped up our response to HIV, and we can today proudly say that our interventions have saved millions of lives. We have been commended by organisations such as United Nations and we are hopeful that researchers will in the near future find a cure.
I would like to appeal to science journalists to also profile the achievements of science in this area. Through science and innovation we have ensured that HIV is no longer a death sentence, and through advances patients can no live long and productive lives.
Innovation in science and technology has led us to what is today termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The drivers of the Fourth Industrial revolution are the combination of ICT and artificial intelligence, Internet of things, 3D printing and biosciences. These emerging technologies will bring to the fore new forms of economic and social relations.
It is the role of scientific journalists to understand, simplify and communicate how science and technology in the fourth industrial revolution will reshape the world as we know it today. Equally, it is the role of journalists to warn of the dangers of artificial machines in the weapons industry.
These are the dangers that have been highlighted by one of the world’s great innovators of South African origin, Elon Musk together with the eminent British scientist Stephen Hawking and billionaire Bill Gates. This means that science journalists need to carry out their task as both cheerleaders and watchdogs.
Another area of science journalism that requires watchdogs is the area of conflict of interest of the scientists conducting the research. Often the reporting on science and scientists does not tell us where scientists are getting their funding from and it also does not tell us the interest of the funding body on the outcomes of the research.
This means the focus of science journalism should not only be the science but should also be about the people doing the science. Journalists need to look at power structures, to see who is included in the work and who is excluded or marginalized, whether on the basis gender or race or any other identity.
Our government takes communication very seriously. The Department of Communications through GCIS communicates government programmes, projects and plans to the public. It takes a leading role in supporting departments with their communication. One of our priorities is also to deepen and broaden public awareness of science and technology. In doing this we like to partner with journalists and media houses.
Social media has opened up spaces for a reaching a broader audience of young people. New platforms such YouTube, Facebook, twitter and other social media platforms have created opportunities for science journalists to package their messages in innovative ways that will attract young people who would not normally read science articles in newspapers and magazines.
By taking advantage of these media platforms journalists can Maximise reach, impact and understanding of science. In the final analysis journalists need understand that Science journalists are not science advocates and scientists aren’t science.
In closing, I have no doubt that today’s journalism role in science has become even more pronounced. I remain confident that government and the media are ultimately united in our desire to see a better and more prosperous South Africa through the provision of science reporting. Together we can build on the gains we have made and move South Africa forward.
I thank you